Though increasingly dark and serious on the silver screen, DC comic properties on TV are getting brighter and more cartoonish with every iteration. Arrow, which debuted on the CW in 2012 kicked things off with a more staid tone, but Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg lightened things up for The Flash, which spun off from Arrow in 2014 (and also made my list of the best TV shows of the year). From those two successes, another spinoff is born: DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, which takes a motley crew of characters from both series and unites them under a Time Master leader (Rip Hunter, played by Arthur Darvill) in order to fight an immortal, time-traveling foe.
Fans of The Flash will have had time to adjust to ideas of particle physics, time travel, and general comic weirdness, what with that show’s multiple Earths, the Speed Force, Gorilla City, and even King Shark. The Flash can be wonderfully cartoonish, but it also has a lot of heart, managing to stay grounded, ultimately, through stories of love, friendship, and relationships (this is the CW, after all). But Legends of Tomorrow seems primed to double-down on the more out-there side of things, as the group is herded in a whirling fashion aboard Rip Hunter’s ship, the Waverider, to travel off through space and time. Immediately.
The players will be familiar to some (with a few surprising cameos), but anyone coming in blind will have one heck of a time understanding anything that happens in the first act of the premiere. Later on, though, patience is rewarded, as a little more is explained about the origins of Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee) and Hawkman (Falk Hentschel), the backgrounds of Leonard Snart/Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller) and Mick Rory/Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell), Firestorm (Victor Garber and Franz Drameh), the Atom (Brandon Routh), and Sara Lance (Caity Lotz, soon to be White Canary). It’s old news for some views, but regardless, it adds up to a lot of moving parts, and Legends doesn’t seem to quite know how to bring together.
The show’s two-episode premiere can be chaotic in that respect, but it’s also an entertaining spectacle that careens from the awkward to the fantastic often within the same stream of dialogue. There’s a lot of humor — there are plenty of characters always standing around, ready to make quips, and Ray even gets in a “whoops!” — and a lot of action sequences (including from Victor Garber). But there are times when all of the Legends are fighting at once that feels like kids playing with action figures. And to be fair, that may essentially be true.
Most of the premiere, though, is about the team assembling and deciding whether or not they want to take on these responsibilities. They quarrel, debate, physically fight, and complain, but that’s all to be expected. Some gags regarding their time-traveling (including a trip to the 1970s) are a little heavy-handed, but they work because Legends has never presented itself as anything other than a big, bold story. Most of its core members have died and come back multiple times, for a start, but the show does establish some ground rules for its time traveling, pulling the reins back somewhat on what could otherwise be too chaotic a premise.
By the second hour, the show smartly starts sequestering characters in smaller groups, allowing for better interactions, though it struggles to add depth and, quite often, sense. But truthfully, Legends is not meant to be about logic and philosophy. There are other TV shows for that. This isn’t one of them. This is a time-traveling group of sundries looking to kick ass and take names (a bar fight involving Sara Lance, Snart, and Mick Rory is a standout), and in that it succeeds.
Unfortunately, the show’s immortal villain, Vandal Savage (Casper Crump), isn’t as big or as bold as he should be. Both Arrow and The Flash have recently introduced great foils for their heroes in Zoom and Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), but Vandal Savage — aside from his immortality — doesn’t seem to inspire much fear or, frankly, much interest. We’re told, many times, of the bad things he can do, but we don’t see it. With a more dynamic villain (or with an expansion of Vandal’s abilities and malice), Legends could really accelerate into a truly great show.
For now, it’s a fast-paced action-adventure story with good visuals, fun references, intriguing twists, and a sprawling cast that — rather like Rip Hunter, in exasperated schoolmarm mode —it doesn’t know quite how to corral. They are heroes, however reluctant, but they aren’t legends. Yet. But there’s potential, and plenty of time.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fun television
Legends of Tomorrow premieres Thursday, January 21st at 8 p.m. on the CW. Check back here for weekly episode recaps from Evan Valentine.